Building a Better Debate

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

IF YOU TUNED IN to the recent Republican and Democratic presidential debates, you may have had the same reaction as many viewers looking at the crowded stages: Who's that? The Democratic debate in South Carolina featured eight candidates, while 10 crammed into the GOP debate in California last Thursday. Voters trying to sort out their presidential choices aren't helped by debates cluttered with the likes of Mike Gravel (hint: he's a former senator from Alaska) on the Democratic side and Ron Paul (hint: he's a libertarian House member from Texas) among the Republicans. If the standard is that any declared candidate is entitled to a podium, we're going to end up with even more crowded stages in 2012.

One possibility would be to allow viewers to vote off one candidate after each debate; it seems to work well for other TV programs. But there may a better way to improve the debate system, though this would need to be done carefully and slowly. For starters, as this process continues, debate organizers ought to think about using various tests to narrow the fields. Has a candidate demonstrated any indicia of viability or seriousness: standing in the polls, ability to raise money, trips to the state where the debate is taking place? When Mr. Gravel says he's not running to win, that ought to be grounds enough to toss him out. Yes, at this early stage, poll standing alone isn't enough to exclude a candidate; some serious, experienced candidates are mired in the single digits, and they ought to be given their chance to catch fire. But as the process moves forward, the bar for inclusion should move higher.

Another solution to a still-crowded field would be to structure the debates more usefully to assess the quality of candidates' thinking. Would it be too much to ask for 90-second answers? Or for a format in which candidates could question each other? The best would be to give sustained attention to a single topic, or at most a few areas. Why not one debate on economic issues such as taxes, spending and trade, another on Iraq and foreign policy, more on domestic issues such as health care, education, the environment and immigration? Even if debates aren't this rigorously formatted, certainly they could benefit from more focus on a few topics, rather than Thursday's attention-deficit-disorder-style debate, which skipped from belief in evolution (three candidates didn't) to organ donation to I. Lewis Libby.

It can be argued that debates will be more important than ever this election, with its compressed and nationalized primary calendar. It's in everyone's interest to rethink how they are conducted.

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